Patrick Flanery's debut novel constructs a mosaic of contemporary South Africa: a country where ugly human crime, past and present, jars against natural beauty, and as powerfully depicted here as in any book by J M Coetzee or Damon Galgut.
In present-day Cape Town, a journalist, Sam, interviews a writer, Clare, whose work he has devoured since childhood, for a biography. But what else connects the two? Why is Sam so interested in Clare's life? Why is Clare consumed with guilt about her dead sister Nora, who married a white supremacist high up in the National Party during the apartheid era? Not only grief haunts Clare in relation to her daughter Laura, who disappeared years before, and whom the family suspect of having worked for the armed wing of the ANC.
Flanery's novel is related in different narrative streams that eventually meet. Chapters alternate in their viewpoints: Clare and Sam each recount the present; Clare writes a second-person version of the events she imagines led to Laura's disappearance. She grieves for her daughter, and berates herself for her failings as a mother. There are flashbacks to 1989, when Sam's care was taken over by a malign half-uncle after the death of his parents, anti-apartheid activists. And there are excerpts from "Absolution", Clare's memoir, which she labels as fiction to avoid repercussions.
Flanery's portrayal of South Africa is explosively powerful. The horrors of the apartheid regime are evoked in chilling detail. Censorship loomed over every form of media, and those who displeased the government met death, imprisonment or exile. ANC members were imprisoned in inhuman conditions.
This is an exceptionally intelligent, multi-layered novel encompassing politics, history, a gripping storyline and complex characters. It has absorbing depictions of grief, guilt, parenthood and sibling rivalry, and is beautifully written. The prose is lucid and strong, scenes of crime are full of suspense, and time and again phrases haunt with their imagery. Bereaved parents appear "like two grey monuments"; a New York window shows "a canary sludge of taxis, bleeding brake lights". Absolution is an exceptional book.